Like a dedicated flat-earther, I’ve always believed I played my last high school baseball game at a field in Memphis named after Phil Gagliano, the not-so-famous St. Louis Cardinals backup infielder of the 1960s. Gagliano was a Memphian. The field was named Gagliano Field. (Or, simply, Gagliano, as we all called it.) Across town, Memphis’ minor-league park was named after Tim McCarver, another Memphis kid who’d played with Gagliano in St. Louis. The hometown baseball symmetry was glorious.
Except, it wasn’t.
Gagliano Field — which, coincidentally, is only a few minutes from my childhood home in Memphis’ Parkway Village neighborhood — isn’t named after Phil Gagliano. It’s named after Tony Gagliano, Phil’s uncle and the patriarch of a family renowned in Mid-South baseball lore. Looking back, I must have been the only dork not to know of Gagliano Field’s true namesake. Color me dumb.
(By the way, my last high school game was wholly unforgettable except for two points: first, I started at second base for Wooddale; and second, I hit a weak-sister liner to White Station’s second baseman in my final at-bat, thus saving me from the indignity of going through life hiding the fact that I struck out the last time I swung a bat. We also lost, the score long forgotten.)
Phil Gagliano died not that long ago — in December 2016 — and his story is fairly well known, especially in Memphis, where anyone who wore the Cardinal uniform attained instant and lifelong status, and still does.
Phil Gagliano was a lifelong bench player (except for the 1965 season, when he was the Cardinals’ top second baseman for much of the year) and pinch-hitter for St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boston and the Chicago Cubs.
Phil Gagliano was considered a “secret weapon” on a team of MLB stars.
Phil Gagliano was a big deal in Memphis.
“I played six positions. When I was younger, I was kind of, I guess, disappointed that I never got an opportunity [to play regularly]. I think I got myself labeled as a guy that could come off the bench and play. Not everybody can do that. By me playing so many different positions, they could carry another pitcher. That was another advantage of keeping me on the bench. I was fortunate because I played on winning ballclubs. I didn’t play on too many losing ballclubs. In my early days with the Cardinals, yeah, but after that I was always on a contender. I have no regrets. It was a great life.” (As told to the Society of American Baseball Research)
But Tony Gagliano, who died in 1978, is a bigger deal in Memphis, baseball-wise. It just took me an embarrassingly long time, decades, in fact, to finally realize it. I’ll blame it on the beer.
Tony never made the Major Leagues. He signed with the New York Giants and played briefly with Class D Portageville, Missouri, in 1935 before an arm injury killed his career. He then turned into perhaps Memphis’ top high school and American Legion baseball coach for decades on end. He coached his nephew, McCarver and several other local kids who played in The Show, including Ross Grimsley and Tucker Ashford. It’s no wonder the city named one of its baseball fields in his honor. That field, by the way, remains one of the best public baseball facilities in the city.
I wish I’d known all that back then. So much for the ignorance of youth.